Column #183 “Cheers” to Justin Irwin — a Man with GUTS!

May 20, 2005
Column 183
“Cheers” to Justin Irwin — a Man with GUTS!

“Only in America,” penned someone recently, “can a poor black boy grow up to be a rich white woman, like Michael Jackson.” “Only in America,” boxing promoter Don King is fond of saying…

But never in America — only in England — can one man’s decision to chuck his day job and hit the road in pursuit of his dream become national news for days. That is if his dream is to become darts champion of the world.

Justin Irwin’s his name.

The thing is, darts isn’t (or wasn’t) exactly his game.

Oh, like most kids in England, years ago he tossed a few with his mates. He watched some darts on television back in the 1980’s. The past few of years he even ventured to Purfleet and Frimley Green to watch the World Championships, get pissed, and pass out on the floor. Perhaps deep down he had the itch…

Irwin was living good. He was knocking down £50,000 (about $100,000) a year as an executive for a charity called ChildLine which provides a free 24-hour helpline for children. ChildLine raised £12.6 million in 2003 (around $25 million), about the same amount as Helen Keller Worldwide. In the non-profit world Irwin was a big deal. In the darts world he was nothing but a chucker.

Then one day a friend organized a casual tournament at a local pub. A handful of old acquaintances showed up. They threw some arrows, drained a few jars, and recalled old times. For months afterwards, Irwin’s mind would often flash back to the camaraderie of this day — the exhilaration of the occasionally well-placed darts he threw, the possibilities…

“I got to thinking…,” he recalls, “I could hit the treble 20 sometimes. I had the basic skills to be good at darts some of the time. I got to wondering and became hopeful that, with practice, I could hone the skills to be good at darts all of the time.”

Who among us hasn’t?

About a year later — this past January 7 to be exact — Irwin decided to scratch his itch. He walked into ChildLine and submitted his letter of resignation.

What guts!

The next day he began pounding the sisal, determined to see how good a darts player he really could become if he did nothing, absolutely nothing, but dedicate himself full-time to the sport. He set a goal — a very specific goal: “to qualify to compete for the world championship.”

When the British press got hold of the story they went wild. In predictable tabloid fashion they twisted and distorted Irwin’s words. When many of the British professionals and county league regulars began to read the press the proverbial doody hit the fan. They ridiculed him. They trashed the bugger.

Admittedly Irwin is not your stereotypical tungsten-tosser. He’s spent years “giving back” – working for charities like ChildLine and the Samaritans. He has a degree in literature from London University. He claims to have read all of Charles Dickens’ novels, including Pride and Prejudice. Surely Irwin is cut from a different cloth than most darters — possibly even you — who while wading through the last sentence probably didn’t blanch at the obvious flaw.

It’s time to set the record straight.

Irwin did not boast that he would be the “darts champion of the world within twelve months time,” as has been reported. He did not call the sport “easy” or “unskilled.” He did not in any way, directly or backhandedly, denigrate the dedication or the skill essential to success at the highest levels.

Irwin is simply pursuing a childhood “ambition to be a champion at some sport.” He has nothing but the “utmost respect for the purity of the sport and admiration for those who have reached the pinnacle of success.”

Don’t we all have such dreams?

Don’t we all feel this way?

Irwin is in his middle thirties, for chrissake. He’s a smart guy. He didn’t have to whip out his calculator to figure out that such a late entry into the world of cricket or football or boxing was out of the question. He’s a competitive guy but he’s not a fool. Nobody intentionally makes an appointment with the Cookoo Bird.

So then the darting community begins to read the press reports. They react in anger. Postings begin to show up in darts forums around and about the Internet. Some of the professionals are interviewed and are quick to slag on the bloke.

Typical of the flurry of reaction in the ether was this posting at Phil Taylor’s website: “Mr. Irwin, I believe you know that this… is a joke. Eric Bristow is (no) longer the most arrogant player. This title is now (yours)!” “Ask Mr. Taylor for a practice session!” wrote another. “I believe that you would wish your old job back!”

In an interview, Andy Fordham probably best summed up the general reaction to Irwin’s quest in one word: “Barmy.”

Or perhaps Fordham just burped. Sometimes it’s difficult to know.

But what Fordham didn’t do, what very few darters did, was give a guy with nothing but love and passion for the sport the benefit of the doubt. They just plain took the press as Gospel.

Irwin is no different than any of the rest of us. He lives in the north of London, has a girlfriend (Emma), goes out for Indian, once sold insurance and encyclopedias, and follows the Derby County Football Club. The last book he read was Niall Edworthy’s Planet Darts.

He’s come a long way from Dickens (and Jane Austen)!

I asked him who he most looked up to in darts. “I look up to all darts players,” he replied. “I honestly can’t believe how good they are, particularly bearing in mind the pressure on them at the biggest tournaments. And I will always look up to Keith Deller. I remember so vividly him beating Bristow in the finals of the Embassy in 1984.”

I asked him about his views on the image of the sport. “The image portrayed by the media is remarkably patronizing, and usually particularly uninformed. I have yet to read an article about me, outside the darts media, that hasn’t referred to the ‘fact’ that I am not fat enough to be a darts player. I also get very annoyed with the way the skill required is not understood – and of course, have been very frustrated with quotes attributed to me on this subject.”

I asked him what his most embarrassing moment was so far in his darts career. He recalled the time, just about a week ago, when he stuck a chalker in the ear.

No, only kidding.

Irwin remembered a time before he left his job and began to chase his dream, when he introduced himself to Eric Bristow at some corporate function. Irwin said something witty to the five-times world champion to which Bristow replied with “whatever” and walked away. Probably Irwin didn’t appreciate that he was actually treated quite respectfully, at least (if recent reports can be believed) compared to Bristow’s second wife.

Currently Irwin is practicing hard, improving daily. He’s was spotted at the Hampshire Open recently and performed a whole hell of a lot better than many people anticipated he might. Amazingly in fact, he fought his way to the finals where he lost a heartbreaker to Lionel Sams.

Okay, that’s a lie. Irwin got knocked out the first round and Mark Thompson defeated Sams in the real final.

I played with the Hampshire tournament facts for fun and effect. What the press did by mis-quoting Irwin, over and over and over, caused him to be unfairly branded and then mocked by many in the darting community.

All Irwin is trying to do is see how good he can be at something he loves.

What the fuck is wrong with that?

Only a handful of people have stood up and recognized that what Irwin has done took courage – and is something a whole lot of us don’t have the gumption (or finances) to attempt.

There are also a small number of darters who have observed that, his inexperience notwithstanding, what Irwin has done – give up the security of his day job to reach for the stars – is absolutely no different than the decision many of the top touring professionals once made in their own lives.

As one of these individuals recently put it: “Good luck, Mr. Irwin. It takes balls to do what you’ve done.”

To that, all any of us should say is “Amen.”

And to Justin Irwin, we should extend our hand and wish him nothing but the best of luck.

From the Field,

Dartoid

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Dartoid
Author of the column that since 1995 has been featured by Bull’s Eye News, the American Darts Organization’s (ADO) Double Eagle and numerous other darts publications and websites around the globe.

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